Ganja and “S.H.I.T.” (Suspected Hippie In Transit): Backpacking Southeast Asia in The 70s

Getting the bus to Borobudur in Java

Following on from our extremely popular article about London lad Barrie Scott who backpacked Southeast Asia in the 60s, we brought on the fearless Aussie Ian H to tell us how backpacking Southeast Asia was in the 70s and early 80s!

The Outback might have prepared him for the snakes hiding in his room, but the SHIT (Suspected Hippie In Transit) label is another story altogether. Journeying on the roof of local buses, being engulfed by the fumes of passengers smoking ganja while airborne and relying on local news to get around, we interviewed Ian from his home in Melbourne…

What motivated you to start backpacking Southeast Asia?

When I was seven years old, my mum gave me a hardback children’s encyclopedia for Christmas with a bright yellow cover and five images from around the world: The Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, an Afghani in a turban, a Chinese rickshaw and the Pyramids at Giza. I decided there and then that I wanted to know why those people dressed that way, where they lived and why? (I still have the book somewhere in my library.)

At Uni, I was a member of the Monash University Malay and Indonesian Club (MUMIC) where many students took annual trips to Indonesia, studied and stayed at the University of Salatiga in Central Java. Some students, like my girlfriend Sue and I, preferred to be more independent and go backpacking with our own schedule and itinerary for the three months in between university years. Back then students did not actually take gap years, but often began backpacking and never returned to university! So at the age of 19, I set off for my first overseas journey…

Sue and Ian in Chiang Mai, Thailand 1979
Sue and Ian in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1979

What ideas were circulating in the Western world of Southeast Asia at that time?

Southeast Asia was viewed as a completely untamed, wild part of the third world — full of poverty, political instability and danger. Southeast Asia and India were famous for stories of incredible dysentery, cholera, typhoid and tropical illness. Many people feared travelling to Asia. The shadow of the Vietnam War still hung over that region. Other than very adventurous travellers and students, most tourists stayed close to the developed cities such as Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was seen to be very exotic and wild enough to visit without getting into too much trouble! Thailand, on the other hand, had a vigorous trade in heroin and was viewed by most people in Australia at the time as a pit of sin and depravity.

Today in Southern Thailand, there are ‘moon’ parties, jungle parties, beach raves and many other excuses to get totally wasted with various drugs. This isn’t different than the ’70s and ’80s when hash cookies, mushrooms and ganja were freely available (yet highly illegal in southeast Asia).

Bangkok had been a well-known destination during the Vietnam War in the 1960s for “Relief and Recreation” (“R and R”) travel for US soldiers. During that period, an intense trade in prostitution and drugs had developed, a trade which some say continues to this day.

What did your family and friends think of your decision to travel?

My parents were horrified, but they knew Sue and I would travel regardless of their opinions. (Isn’t that true of most young wanderlust backpackers?)

Asia was seen as a place where backpackers disappeared and were never seen again! Parents were paranoid about their children being caught up in the drug trade and being locked up in a Southeast Asian prison. It wasn’t like drugs were something “exotic” in my neighbourhood and something that my parents had no idea about. I had grown up in a part of Melbourne during the ’70s, where teenagers selling drugs by the kilo. One set of parents we knew supplied morphine for a schoolmate’s 14th birthday to “liven things up.” I knew teenagers who were dealing quantities of drugs equal to four months average salary. But even so, travelling to Asia was not something my parents were thrilled about.

Our friends and peers were completely cool with us travelling; Australians were already famous for being adventurous. It was a natural progression in my friends’ eyes that Sue and I should venture into Southeast Asia and beyond. From the age of seven, I was roaming around the outback of Melbourne, so backpacking came pretty easily. We had a bunch of mates who did the same and it was “de rigour” to head off to Asia the second university finished and to arrive back on the latest possible day before classes started.

The hope was that you arrived back from Asia without “Bali belly” or some other tropical problem such as typhoid, malaria or cholera.

How did you navigate around Asia?

When we travelled, the Lonely Planet Guide to Southeast Asia by Tony and Maureen Wheeler was in the process of being written and published.

The first real travel book was written by a guy named Dalton, and it had a pure black cover, like a bible (it was actually referred to for years as Dalton’s Bible). Dalton’s personal guide was a remarkable tomb of information about Indonesia, but very out of date with prices and timetables. Sue and I travelled to some of the outer islands in Indonesia such as Sulawesi and Sumatra, but the further away from the mainstream backpacking trail we strayed, the more inaccurate Dalton’s Bible became. Some of the maps were so incorrect that it was unbelievable that they were the same towns or cities.

The lovely thing about the Bible was that Dalton named the owners and staff of hotels, restaurants and in some cases, you could actually meet the people in the book. One such person was Ibu Canderi, who ran Canderi’s Losmen (now a homestay and restaurant) in Ubud, Bali. Canderi’s was one of the first losmens (small guest houses usually run by local families) in Ubud.

In 1978, we ate at Ibu Canderi’s on advice from Dalton’s Bible and in 2012, I asked my daughter when she was visiting Bali to see if Canderi’s still exists. She met Ibu Canderi and sent me a photo of the two of them. I later visited Ibu Canderi in January 2014, and she claimed to remember me from 1978. I’m not sure she did, but it was lovely to see her after 36 years and know that Canderi’s was still rocking and rolling, feeding and housing backpackers and the like.

Rex hotel in Singapore, about to go home after three months backpacking
Rex Hotel in Singapore, about to return home after three months backpacking southeast Asia.

Where was the first place you landed in Southeast Asia and what was it like?

We landed in Denpasar, Bali on the first fully chartered STA student flight from Australia.

The flight we took from Melbourne to Denpasar was completely out of control. I think we were on a Boeing 707, and I can remember when the door closed, the steward — who was a real character — clapped his hands, looked around and said, “Let’s party!” You can imagine what 181 students all on one inaugural flight, and just about to have the adventure of their lifetime, were like!

During the whole flight, people were drinking beer and passing joints across the aircraft.

The whole plane stunk of dope and there was a blue haze from one end of the plane to the other. (Can you imagine that today!?) By the time we arrived, after the five-and-a-half-hour flight from Melbourne, nearly everyone was either drunk or stoned. It was a pretty wild flight. I am not sure if anyone joined the mile-high club, but I would not have been surprised.

When we arrived in Denpasar, Sue and I headed off to Kuta Beach, which was a village about 200 meters from the beach. At night you could walk under the moon and palm trees and just sit quietly and listen to the surf. Kuta actually has fairly dangerous rips, but most Aussies were good swimmers, so it wasn’t an issue for us.

Which places in Southeast Asia left an impression on you?

I loved visiting Phuket and staying right on the beach. We stayed at Kata Beach near Karon Beach. The year we stayed there, there were only 90 bamboo bungalows on Kata beach and the surrounding area. I don’t think there were any bungalows or buildings at Karon Beach, so imagine the whole of Phuket with just 90 huts! To get out to Kata and the Karon beach area, we had to ride on an old truck converted into a bus on dirt roads. For the hell of it, I rode on the roof with the locals and the luggage.

Sue and I used to wash at a well near our bungalow, and there was only one restaurant, which was actually built on the sand out of palm branches with a rough wooden frame. There were sea snakes, which were pretty frightening, as well as snakes that took refuge in the ceilings of the grass huts. I almost stood on a snake one morning. Another time, there was a scorpion on the platform at the well where we used to wash. We were told not to venture into the long grass or near the paddies because there were cobras.  

What was transportation back then like?

Transport outside of main towns was either in the back of a truck or a covered utility. In Indonesia, there were many Japanese mini-vans designed for nine people, with up to 25 people jammed inside and hanging off the sides or roof. The 1.2- and 1.4-litre motors were pushed to the limit. Everyone would be there. Sometimes there would be five people in the front seat. Occasionally massive calico bags of rice would be thrown in with the passengers and other produce, as well as fighting cocks in cages, babies in sarongs, children and elderly people.

Friends of ours had taken one flight where the pilots were arguing with each other about where they were located. The door of the cockpit was open and one of the pilots pulled out a paper aeronautical map and started to make calculations with the map spread across the controls. The plane, carrying our terrified friends, eventually landed half an hour late.

We were once flying in the middle of a monsoon and hit a lot of turbulence. It is one thing to be in a jumbo or an A380 in monsoonal weather but it is another story in an old turbo-prop. The plane was dipping and diving and tilting like a veritable roller coaster. After about 40 minutes, the plane stank. Not only adults and children upchucking, but also the “Transmigrasi” people (locals being transported to other areas of the country by the government), most of whom had never been in a bus let alone seen or travelled in an aircraft. Many of the adults had actually been so terrified that they had either crapped or pissed their pants. It was an unbelievable stench, and we felt really sorry for these terrified people. The storm was very severe and I really was not sure of our chances of a safe arrival. Eventually, we landed about 20 minutes late, which was a long time in the days of limited excess fuel. I am pretty sure we must have been on the absolute edge of the fuel tanks.  

After we arrived, one of the funniest things was watching the luggage arrive on the conveyor belt. Most of the Transmigrasi people had never seen such a device. When bags started to appear through the wall, people were astonished. One guy straddled the conveyor belt and waddled his way to the wall to look through the rubber strips to see what was behind the magic wall. It was hilarious. After a few bags, pigs, roosters and chickens began to appear in various combinations of cane baskets. We realised that the hold must have been full of prized pets and farm animals. It was the first and last time that I saw pigs and chickens at an airport conveyor belt arriving as checked luggage.

What was accommodation like?

In some parts of Java and Thailand, a lot of accommodation doubled up as brothels.

It was not uncommon to stay somewhere where some rooms were marked for tourists, and others for 24-hour sex nests for other types of guests. I remember a place in Solo (also called Surakata) in Central Java, where the hotel had a wide corridor and walls made of a material not much superior to cardboard. There was a women a few rooms away who spent most of her day in a cotton nightgown sitting outside of her room. Each room had a table and two chairs out the front plus an endless thermos flask of sugary tea. We were naïve at first and assumed that she was another resident, but later realised that the number and frequency of visitors to her room meant a different type of occupancy. Prostitution was rife throughout Indonesia and Bangkok was famous for prostitution even then. Many of the rooms in hotels had high ceilings and wall mirrors—one room also came equipped with stirrups, if that takes your fancy.

Sue in the hammock outside grass hut at Kata Beach, Phuket
Sue in the hammock outside a grass hut at Kata Beach, Phuket

Did locals welcome travellers in the 70s?

We felt very welcome throughout southeast Asia, and we had a particularly warm welcome in Indonesia because Sue and I both spoke the language. We could chat with people, crack jokes and were able to have a very different experience to most tourists. We also learned a little bit of Thai; enough to order meals, find a room and ask for basic help. To this day, I believe that learning the language can really help in getting to know the locals.

Off the beaten track in Java, you had to be very careful, polite and respectful of local culture. Indonesia is a very liberal Islamic country, but women had to ensure their wrists and shoulders were covered when travelling. Bare shoulders or the display of elbows was an absolute no-no in small towns and villages. One time we had a bunch of kids throw rocks at us because we were foreigners and they did not think that Sue was appropriately dressed. They were just being kids, harmless and playing up.

Was there a big backpacker scene at the time?

Yes, the big adventure was to travel overland from Australia to London. The tricky bit was that it was dangerous to travel through Iran and Turkey.

The Iran border seemed to open and close on a whim, and people were detained frequently. There was periodic fighting and it was very difficult to get up-to-date information with no internet and limited access to international news. Overseas phone calls were wildly expensive and very difficult to make from isolated locations. People who travelled overland would have to rely on local news to find out if it was safe to travel onward.

On the backpacker trail, people would go missing occasionally, never to be seen again. It was also dangerous for blonde-haired women in some parts of Asia and the Middle East, so many women used to dye their hair black to travel overland to London, or to travel throughout Africa.

Did backpacker hubs like Khao San Road exist back then?

Khao San Road was one of the first big backpacker hangouts in Asia.

Jalan Jaksa in Jakarta was famous, as well as Phuket and Ko Samui in Thailand. Kuta Beach was significant, as was Yogjakarta in Java, and Lake Toba in Sumatra for their “Sumantran Gold” dope. Batu Ferringhi in Penang was a great location for backpackers, but the Malaysian and Singaporean Governments were publicly against hippies. On arrival, there were large signs listing the characteristics of hippies as a warning to travellers. Some of what I remember, included…

HOW TO IDENTIFY A SHIT: (SUSPECTED HIPPIE IN TRANSIT)

  • Men who have hair below their shoulders. (I had long hair halfway down my back at university. When I went to Asia, I had it cut because I would not be allowed to enter Singapore otherwise.)
  • Men or women who do not wear underwear. (It was important that female travellers wore bras, otherwise they would be considered hippies and liable to deportation. Also, if men wore baggy shorts and it was obvious that they had no underwear on, they would usually be taken away for interrogation to discover if they really were a hippie.)
  • Men or women who wear wooden shoes that are not part of a traditional costume. (This was a reference to clogs, which were very popular at the time, but considered hippie attire unless you were Dutch.)
  • Men who wear earrings. (I had both ears pierced and always took my earrings out when travelling.)
  • Men or women who do not wash.

A badge of pride for many backpackers was that they were initially refused entry to Malaysia and had a large stamp in their passport by the Malaysian Government. The stamp took about one-third of a page and was an acronym, “SHIT,” which stood for “Suspected Hippie In Transit”.

If you were labelled “SHIT,” then you had three days to leave the country.

When I first visited Penang, there were regular stories in the Butterworth Press and The Straits Times about hippies and their depraved habits, deportation stories and being identified after “pretending to be tourists.”

I read one hilarious article along the lines of, “How will the Malaysian Government identify hippies who cut their hair?”  It was a very serious article about those dastardly hippies who were disguised in short hair. Even though the hippie issue was well known, plenty of backpackers refused to dress up for immigration and were duly harassed or deported by Malaysian officials.

Rickshaw to cross the Thai Malay border near Kota Batu
Rickshaw to cross the Thai Malay border near Kota Batu

How many times have you travelled to SE Asia since 1978 and what changes have you witnessed over the years?

I have travelled regularly through Asia for more than 30 years. For me, the biggest changes are with infrastructure and economic development. I lived in Indonesia during the Asian economic boom and in two years (1994 to 1996) Jakarta built more than 200 buildings higher than 30 stories, as well as shopping complexes and freeways. This would be the equivalent of London building 15 Canary Wharfs in two years or rebuilding the whole of downtown San Francisco in the same period. I have never seen anything close to that type of development.

Throughout Southeast Asia back in the 70s, the electricity and gas supplies, sewage and water supplies were problematic. The establishment of modern power stations meant that industrial development and factories could expand. Also, the improvements in port facilities meant greater imports and services not only for locals but also for tourists. These developments have changed wealth, skills and education, as well as social mobility throughout Asia.

One of the big downsides of development, however, is the massive increase over the years in pollution and environmental degradation at popular tourist destinations.

In many parts of southeast Asia, governments struggle to invest in or be able to manage environmental degradation. In the 1970s and before, a lot of takeaway food was wrapped in banana leaves which people would throw on the side of the road. The leaves would decompose quickly in the tropical environment, but banana leaves were quickly replaced with plastic bags. Also, some tourist locations cannot manage the volume of sewage and rubbish, so it is either poured into rivers or dumped offshore. For backpackers reading this – your rubbish counts!

Which place do you think has changed the most?

This is a difficult question. Most of the cities in SE Asia have been radically transformed in the last 30 years.

From photos I have seen, Phuket physically has none of the beauty or characteristics of the 1970s and ’80s other than the same ocean, the same sky and lovely local Thai hosts.

Ian outside the Losmen Puri Muwa in Monkey Forest Road, just near Canderi’s – 1978.

Nusa Dua in Bali is basically a small city now and the same goes for Kuta. The beauty of the beach and the acres of coconut palms were destroyed many years ago. Needless to say, people still have wonderful holidays and experiences in those locations, however, there is very little left of the original landscape or day-to-day culture for tourists to experience.

There is barely anything left of the old Singapore, the colonial architecture, palm trees and jungle. Singapore was one of the most charming and exotic cities in the world but is now highly advanced and high-tech. Beautiful in a different way I guess. 

The culture, languages and personal identity of each country in Southeast Asia remain very strong, but there is a pervasive re-creation of western fashion, music and media. With globalisation, this can’t be helped.

Have backpackers themselves changed?

I think that tourists and backpackers, in general, are far less adventurous than they used to be and crave the luxuries and amenities of home.

A lot of travellers focus more on selfies and uploading pictures immediately to Facebook or Instagram than interacting with the people around them. In the 1960s and ’70s, backpackers often did not have any news from home for six weeks or more. No news at all.

Prior to the internet and mobile phones, communication with home was made by having letters sent to “Post Restante” — mail-holding service for tourists — at post offices along the route. Most post offices would keep your mail for four weeks before sending it back to the return address.

One of the funniest places that I picked up mail was in Kathmandu. The mail was in alphabetical order in boxes on a table the equivalent size of about three dining tables. However, the post office was not privy to reading English names. So nearly all of the mail was under “M” for “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Miss” or “Mrs.” It took quite a while to find your mail!

Did you backpack Southeast Asia in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s? How have things changed? Share Your Thoughts in the Comments Below!

2 thoughts on “Ganja and “S.H.I.T.” (Suspected Hippie In Transit): Backpacking Southeast Asia in The 70s

  1. Erna van der Linde says:

    Wat een mooi en herkenbaar verhaal. Ik heb in 1980 gereisd naar veel dezelfde plaatsen.
    Phuket Kata beach was geweldig in die bamboe hutjes. Paradijselijk mooi. Heerlijk 3x pd vis eten in het strand restaurant en zelf oesters van de rotsen steken. Onvergetelijk!

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